Posts filed under 'Netherlands'

1535: Jacob van Campen, Amsterdam Anabaptist

Add comment July 10th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1535, the Amsterdam Anabaptist leader Jacob van Campen* was mutilated, beheaded, and consigned to flames.

He’s an oddly little-known figure considering his stature in the movement — an anomaly the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online attributes to van Campen’s radical affiliations during the time when Anabaptists’ rebellion at Muenster sent the movement into the wilderness. But in Amsterdam in 1535, the cloth shearer was a leader of some 3,000 adherents to the new heresy.

There had been a price on his head since at least May of 1534, so absent a Joris-esque disappearance his capture was probably just a matter of time.

Once in his enemies’ power, van Campen’s person was used to stage a particularly elaborate execution spectacle. According to Drama, Performance and Debate: Theatre and Public Opinion in the Early Modern Period, van Campen

was sentenced to be publicly exposed on a scaffold on the Dam Square wearing a tin mitre with an imprint of the city’s coat of arms. After having been exposed as a mock bishop for one hour or more, his tongue, which he had used to deceive people, was cut out, and his right hand, which he had used to re-baptise was chopped off. He was decapitated and burnt. His head with mitre and his hand were exhibited on the Haarlemmerpoort.


Seated on a platform, the scorned Jacob van Campen endures his tortures while the flame that will soon consume his remains awaits him. Via the Rijksmuseum.

* Not to be confused with the Dutch painter Jacob van Campen.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1619: Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, laandsadvocaat

Add comment May 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1619, Dutch stadtholder Maurice of Orange beheaded his political and religious rival, jurist Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.

Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**

Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, and religious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.

And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?


Detail view (click for the full image) of Satire on the trial of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, by Cornelis Saftleven (1663). Saftleven liked painting animals.

Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”

And it added a passage from Corinthians:

Die staet siet toe dat hij niet en valle

He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.

* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.

The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.

** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.

† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lawyers,Netherlands,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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1573: Maeykens Wens, Antwerp Anabaptist

Add comment October 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1573, Antwerp burned a clutch of Anabaptists, including the martr Maeykens Wens.

Thereupon on the next day, which was the 6th of October, this pious and God-fearing heroine of Jesus Christ, as also her other fellow believers, who in like manner had been condemned, were with their tongues screwed fast, like innocent sheep brought forward, and after each was tied to a stake in the market place, were robbed of life and body by a dreadful and horrible fire, and in a short time were burned to ashes. The oldest son of this aforementioned martyr, called Adrian Wens, about fifteen yars old, upon the day on which his dear mother was sacrificed, could not stay away from the place of execution, so he took his youngest brother, called Hans Matthias Wens, about three years old, on his arm, and stood on a bench not far from the burning-stake to witness his mother’s death. But when she was brought to the stake he fainted, fell down, and lay unconscious until his mother and the others were burned. Afterward, when the people had gone away and he came to himself, he went to the place where his mother was burnt, and hunted in the ashes until he found the screw with which her tongue had been screwed fast, and he kept it for a memento. There are now, 1659, still many descendants of this pious martyr living well known to us, who, after her name, are called Maeyken Wens.

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1736: Herry Moses, Jewish gangster

Add comment October 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1736, a Jewish gangster named Herry Moses was hanged as a highwayman at Vlaardingen, Netherlands.

Our source for Moses is Florike Egmond’s “Crime in Context: Jewish Involvement in Organized Crime in the Dutch Republic” from Jewish History, vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 1989) — for whom Moses forms an window into the criminal life of Netherlands Jews. According to Egmond, Moses hailed from Frankfurt am Main, then an imperial Free City. He had no property or station, and spent the first decades of his life as a wandering beggar, a tinker, and one might guess a petty thief where the opportunity arose.

By 1723, when Moses was around 37 years old, he had washed up in the Dutch Republic — one of many Jews who had migrated to that more tolerant climate from Germany and points east.

In the Low Countries, these arrivistes filled many niches but one of the most noticeable was a burgeoning network of Jewish criminal gangs; per Egmond, in this period “between one-half and two-thirds of all Ashkenazim convicted of burglaries, theft, or robberies had been born outside the Dutch Republic.” The documentary record is far from thorough, but court cases suggest to Egmond the emergence of a small Jewish underground in the mid-17th century following the Thirty Years War, which was bolstered by subsequent immigration waves.

Jews filled plenty of more legitimate places too, of course — and we notice how diligently free of moral panic is the court that handles this minority outlaw. But the Dutch Republic endured in this period the decline of her former trading preeminence, and for the glut of new arrivals — who were sometimes legislated out of certain protected economic spheres — less legitimate occupations could not help but appeal.

Jewish gangs were accordingly quite prominent among the robbers and cutthroats prowling the roads; among other things, they were noteworthy for their willingness to raid churches, which Christian gangs tended to shy from attacking.

Similar “names, geographical background, occupation, travels, meeting places, and variable associations” populate the identifiable records of Jewish criminals, in Egmond’s words. They “were Ashkenazim, most of them poor, and a large majority were first-generation immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe.” Just as with Herry Moses.

So far as I have been able to tell, the annals do not supply us with the why in his strange story … which only deepens the intrigue of the what. Egmond:

In 1735 Herry Moses, alias Abraham Mordechai or Hessel Markus, confessed to a crime he did not commit. According to his version of the story, he murdered a Roman Catholic priest in his house in the Dutch town of Weesp and robbed him of aboug 3,000 guilders. The murder and theft were real enough, and a less scrupulous court than the schepenbank of Weesp (a high jurisdiction some twenty kilometers east of Amsterdam) might have sentenced Herry Moses to death on the strength of his confession alone. Adhering strictly to criminal procedure and confronted with some slight inconsistencies in Moses’ confession, the court tried to obtain more information. Could Moses have murdered the priest, as he declared, when standing behind the bedstead? (There was no room for a man to stand there.) Was he lying when he denounced several Jews and a Christian as his accomplices in both the murder and a burglary at The Hague? His descriptions proved accurate enough to track down some of these men and arrest them in different parts of the Netherlands, but they denied any involvement in the crimes and told the court that they did not even know their accuser. They were eventually released.

Herry Moses was interrogated a number of times during 1734 and most of 1735. Lengthy questioning yielded more detail and added more inconsistencies, but Moses continued to stand by his confession. The court, by now convinced of his innocence, saw no other solution than to torture him — not to obtain a confession but to have him retract it. Moses still did not oblige. The case was subsequently sent to a higher court (the Hof van Holland), which shared the doubts of the local court. Finally, at the end of 1735, Herry Moses was sentenced to whipping, branding, and banishment for life from the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, on account of his false accusations and his contempt for justice in general. Shortly before Herry’s sentencing — after he had been in prison for well over a year — the priest’s housekeeper and her husband confessed to having murdered the priest as well as the woman’s first husband. Both of them were sentenced to death.

As could be expected, Herry disappeared from sight after receiving his sentence, until September 1736, when he again stood trial in a Dutch criminal court. This time, there was no doubt about the indictment or the evidence. Passersby had caught him and his two accomplices in the act of attempting to strangle and rob a woman on a country road near Rotterdam. They arrived in time to save the woman’s life. Herry Moses was sentenced to death, and on 5 October 1736 was hanged at Vlaardingen.

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1567: Four Anabaptists in Antwerp, after torture

Add comment September 13th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1567, four Anabaptists were burned at Antwerp as heretics.

Their sect furnishes many martyrs for these pages. That Christian Langedul, Cornelis Claess, Mattheus de Vick, and Hans Symons were sniffed out and clapped in prison for their faith is no surprise for the time and place they lived, and that they withstood torture and went joyfully to the stake is the script demanded for historical remembrance.

Letters in the hands of three of these men (all save Mattheus de Vick) were retained by their comrades and eventually published in the Martyrs Mirror chronicle of Protestant (especially Anabaptist) martyrs during the Reformation.

Hans Symons and Cornelis Claess wrote words of exhortation to faithfulness and steadfastness. Christian Langedul’s letter, however, catches our eye for its very direct exposition of the nature of the torture that he and the others were put to. In a letter to his wife, Langedul doesn’t sugar-coat his situation in the least — and she must have known full well what their arrest would entail. Centuries later, it’s a discomfiting first-person account of what a man suffers on and after the rack.

we were all examined today before the margrave, and of us six we four freely confessed our faith, for it had to be; either the soul or the body had to be sacrificed; the Lord had to be either forsaken or confessed. Thus, Hans Symons, Cornelis the shoemaker, and Mattheus, confessed as also, I unworthy one, and I hope to keep it to the praise of the Lord, but not through my own power or merit, but by the power and grace of God; for through weakness we are made strong, this I must confess. Eph. 1:19; II Cor. 12:9.

Hence be of good cheer in the Lord, and do the best with the children, of whom I dare not think, for they lie heavily on my heart.

When the margrave examined me today, concerning my faith he asked me about nothing but baptism, and I held out against him as long as I could, by saying that I knew but one baptism according to the Gospel and Christ’s own command and injunction; but his constant question was, “Say yes or no, whether you are satisfied with the baptism you received in your infancy, or whether you have received another?”

I replied that I knew nothing to say about infant baptism; but this did not suffice, I had to confess that I had received another, and thus I confessed it, the Lord be praised, and I have not regretted it yet, and I hope that I shall not regret it unto the end, for it is the truth.

Know, my beloved wife, that yesterday about three o’clock I had written you a letter, which I now send you. I could not send it then, for soon afterwards the margrave came here to torture us; hence I was not able to send the letter, for then all four of us were one after another severely tortured, so that we have now but little inclination to write; however, we cannot forbear, we must write to you.

Cornelis the shoemaker was the first; then came Hans Symons, with whom also the captain went down into the torture chamber. Then thought I, “We shall have a hard time of it; to satisfy him.” My turn came next — you may think how I felt. When I came to the rack, where were the lords, the order was, “Strip yourself, or tell where you live.” I looked distressed, as may be imagined. I then said, “Will you ask me nothing further then?” They were silent.

Then thought I, “I see well enough what it means, it would not exempt me from the torture,” hence I undressed, and fully resigned myself to the Lord: to die. Then they racked me dreadfully, twisting off two cords, I believe, on my thighs and shins; they stretched me out, and poured much water into my body and my nose, and also on my heart. Then they released me, and asked, “Will you not yet tell it?” They entreated me, and again they spoke harshly to me; but I did not open my mouth, so firmly had God closed it.

Then they said, “Go at him again, and this with a vengeance.” This they also did, and cried, “Go on, go on, stretch him another foot.” Then thought I, “You can only kill me.” And thus stretched out, with cords twisted around my head, chin, thighs, and shins, they left me lie, and said, “Tell, tell.” … Again I was asked, “Will you not tell it?” I did not open my mouth. Then they said, “Tell us where you live; your wife and children, at all events, are all gone away.” In short, I said not a word.”What a dreadful thing,” they said. Thus the Lord kept my lips, so that I did not open them; and they released me, when they had long tried to make me speak.

Thereupon two of them, the executioner and his assistant, bore me from the rack. Think how they dealt with us, and how we felt, and still feel. Then they half carried, half dragged me from the torture chamber up into the jailer’s room, where was a good fire of oak wood. There they, once or twice, gave me some Rhenish wine to drink, which revived me in a measure. And when I had warmed myself somewhat, they again half dragged me up over the porter’s room. There they had such commiseration for me; they gave me wine again; they gave me spices, and of everything you had sent me, all of which rendered me very good service. They had wine brought and helped me to bed. But the sheets were very coarse, and greatly hurt my shins and thighs; however, soon afterwards the sheets and pillow you sent me arrived, and there were also two or three pocket handkerchiefs. They then covered me with the sheets, which came very convenient to me, as did also the spices. Had the sheets not come, I know not how I should have passed the night; but so I slept tolerably well. But I am hardly able to stand yet, and the lower part of my legs is as though they were dead from racking; however, it is all well, as I trust by the grace of the Lord.

After me Mattheus was tortured; he named his house and the street in which we live, and said it was in a gate; however, I am of the opinion that there are no longer any gates in that street. Hence move away altogether, if you have not done so yet; for I think the lord will find his way there. Let therefore no one who stands in any danger go into the house. He also named R. T.’s house, and the street where F. V. St. lives. Do herein immediately the best you can. He is very sorry for it.

I wrote you yesterday that I hoped to write to you during the day, but I could not do it; Mattheus and I lay in bed until two o’clock, so greatly were we afraid, because the margrave came here to torture Cornelis again, and we feared that we should also be tortured a second time, of which we had a great dread, more than of death, for it is an excruciating pain. Cornelis was tortured and scourged to such a degree the second time, that three men had to carry him up, and they say that he could scarcely move a member, except his tongue. He sent word to us, that if they come again it is his opinion it will finish him. Thus the Margrave did not come yesterday, but we expect him today again; may the Lord help us, for it is a horrible pain.

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1660: Jan Quisthout van der Linde condemned to drown in New Amsterdam

Add comment June 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1660, in the Netherlands’ little settlement on the tip of Manhattan Island, New Amsterdam, Jan Quisthout van der Linde was sentenced “to be taken to the place of execution and there stripped of his arms, his sword to be broken at his feet, and he to be then tied in a sack and cast into the river and drowned until dead.”

We do not have an indication of the date this sentence was carried out, if it were not immediate.

It was an unusual execution for an unnatural crime: Quisthout had been found guilty of sodomizing his servant.

New Amsterdam is here just four years away from its seizure by the English, who rechristened it New York;* dour, peg-legged Calvinist Peter Stuyvesant had been hustling for 13 years to put the tenuous little settlement on some sort of sustainable, defensible footing even as its neighbor English colonies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island grew to dwarf little Manhattan.

Stuyvesant was a crusty boss.** He’d been crestfallen on arrival to his new assignment to find New Amsterdam a rough-edged melting pot city with livestock roaming the streets, a slurry of languages (and religions), and dockside brawls spilling out of seedy taverns.†


The “Castello Plan” map from 1660 shows the germ of Manhattan’s present-day layout. The defensive wall spanning the island on the right gives us Wall Street.

His horror was practical as well as moral: the little colony, a few hundred souls when he took over and perhaps 1,500 when the English finally deposed him, was in danger on all sides and the cash-strapped West India Company was both slow and miserly in response to Stuyvesant’s desperate pleas for men and material. But the horror was also moral. Stuyvesant enforced a whole slew of unpopular injunctions against drunkenness, fisticuffs, and fouling public streets with refuse, and actually had to be reined in by the West India Company board when he got so overbearing as to try shouldering out Jews and prying into the devotional habits of suspected Quakers.

A paragon of rectitude like Stuyvesant was in no way about to turn a blind eye to casual Atlantic-world buggery.

Even his lax predecessor had come down hard on a previous sodomy case, viewing that sin as an existential threat to their depraved port: “such a man is not worthy to associate with mankind and the crime on account of its heinousness may not be tolerated or suffered, in order that the wrath of God may not descend upon us as it did upon Sodom.”

The crime that we might see here with modern eyes, rape, was in no way foremost to Stuyvesant et al. The boy, an Amsterdam orphan named Hendrick Harmensen, stayed out of the drowning-sack — but he was whipped for same-sex contact and ordered “sent to some other place by the first opportunity” even though that very sentence acknowledged that it was Quisthout who had “committed by force the above crime” on the lad.


View of Dutch Manhattan … and its gallows.

* In honor of the then-Duke of York, the future King James II.

** Try a web search on “Peter Stuyvesant martinet” to see what we mean.

† And slavery.

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1531: Sikke Freriks, Menno Simons inspiration

Add comment March 20th, 2015 Headsman

Dutch artisan Sikke Freriks, beheaded on this date in 1531 in Leeuwarden‘s market, was the first Anabaptist put to death in that Friesland city.

While a minor milestone in the crowded history of Reformation martyrdoms, Freriks had a noteworthy posthumous effect: word of his heresy — adherence to adult, rather than infant, baptism — came to the ears of a Catholic priest, who later wrote that a man’s dying for this illicit doctrine led him to investigate it further.

To his amazement, the priest found no scriptural support for the established church’s practice of baptizing infants before they developed the maturity and volition to embrace Christ from the will of their own hearts. Christians are “cheated” by the loss of that opportunity of freely giving oneself in baptism, he later wrote.

This man, Menno Simons, would follow his discomfiting scrutiny of holy writ all the way out of the priesthood and into that same forbidden sect. His preeminence in the Anabaptist movement after its disastrous Münster rebellion — and particularly his pacifistic orientation — eventually ennobled him as the founder as well as the namesake of the Mennonites, a term that in Menno Simons’s own lifetime became all but synonymous for Dutch Anabaptism.

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1545: Cornelis Appelman and Willem Zeylmaker, Batenburgers

Add comment February 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1545, the leaders of the violent Anabaptist Batenburgers were burned at the stake in Utrecht.

We know Anabaptists best as peaceniks, but the Batenburgers were the dead-end trail to a wholly different reputation. Named for a former Dutch mayor named Jan Van Batenburg, these Zwaardgeesten (“sword-minded”) Anabaptists answered the annihilation of their brethren’s Münster commune by doubling down on revolutionary struggle.

Batenburgers rejected the blandishments of David Joris to lay down the impolitic swords. Their numbers and their philosophies are hard to know with certainty owing to their secrecy, but they’re thought to have maintained the radical Munsterite teachings on polygamy and property.

Van Batenburg himself was caught and executed in 1538, and with that the Batenburgers — who had been living secretly in regular Catholic and Protestant communities — took to the wilderness under the leadership of a Leiden weaver named Cornelis Appelman. For the next ten years or so (even outlasting Appelman’s own death) this band of a couple of hundred desperate men made their way as marauders. We’d probably just call them terrorists today.

Appelman was even more extreme than his predecessor, verging right into crazy cult leader territory with his dystopian insistence on being called “The Judge” and readiness to mete out the severest penalties for any breach of obedience — to say nothing of the arsons, the church-sackings, and the summary executions dealt out to unbelievers. He was finally caught and put to death with his aide Willem Zeylmaker. Batenburger remnants, however, persisted for several more years with at least one splinter continuing until around 1580.

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1538: Anna Jansz, Anabaptist

2 comments January 24th, 2015 Headsman

Dutch Anabaptist Anneke Esaiasdochter (better known as Anna Jansz; this was the surname of her husband*) was executed in Rotterdam on this date in 1538.

Anna (English Wikipedia entry | German) is a key martyr of the fragmented Anabaptist movement following the destruction of Anabaptis’s “New Jerusalem” in Münster.

This catastrophe hurled Anabaptism into the desert, where rival leaders pointed the way to different horizons. Would it double down on revolutionary political aspirations, along the lines of Münster? Would it become a pacificist, spiritual movement without secular aspirations?

Anna Jansz, at least as she appears in the readings others have given her, somewhat personifies these conflicting directions — and not incidentally, the also-open question of women’s role in the Anabaptist movement.

Though she appears in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a model feminine sufferer, the “Trumpet Song” she composed has in at least some versions a distinctly apocalyptic tone. One historian called it the Marseillaise of Anabaptist hymns:

Wash your feet in the godless blood

This is shocking imagery, but it’s also far from clear that it’s actually what Anna herself wrote — or if its surface interpretation is what the author intended to convey. Anabaptism’s fast-evolving strains published different versions of the “Trumpet Song” in the 16th century, whose slight alterations dramatically shade its meaning — especially so in view of the possible scriptural allusions. Here’s a version of the same line in which the verb wash (wascht) is replaced with watch, or mind (wacht), and it now advises the true Christian to leave punishment of the persecutors to God:

You true Christians be of good cheer
Mind dipping your feet in blood
Because this is the reward which those who
robbed us will receive

As Timothy Nyhof details in this paper (pdf), her image is ultimately quite elusive to us,** and filtered through the texts of interlocutors like the great Anabaptist fugitive David Joris, rumored to have been Anna’s onetime lover. Joris published the version of the “Trumpet Song” excerpted just above — the cautious one.†

In the end, a fixed conclusion as to whether Anna was a firebrand later softened for public consumption, or the reverse, or a more nuanced character entirely, is beyond the reach of posterity. In any guise, she was an exponent of the call to spiritual purity and anticipation of the Lord that fortified a proscribed faith in its wilderness sojourn.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Anna Jansz en route to her January 24, 1538 execution from the Martyrs’ Mirror.

* Anna’s husband Arendt Jansz fled to England to escape the persecution of Anabaptists, which is why he doesn’t figure in this story.

** Nyhof ultimately situates Anna Jansz among the Melchiorites. Although that philosophy’s namesake had gone down backing the Anabaptist commune, his post-Münster followers turned Melchior Hoffman’s eschatology towards personal redemption instead of political violence. (Source)

† I’m certain it must exist out there, but I have not been able to find online a complete version of any of the “original” versions of Anna’s famous song, either in Dutch or in translation. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers gives the last three of its 13 stanzas thus:

At Borsa and Edom, so the author has read
The Lord is preparing a feast
From the flesh of kings and princes.
Come all you birds,
Gather quickly
I will feed you the flesh of princes.
As they have done, so shall be done to them.
You servants of the Lord, be of good cheer.
Wash your feet in the blood of the godless.
This shall be the reward for those who robbed us.

Be pleased therefore, rejoice and be glad.
Play a new song on your harps;
Delight in our God
All you who foresee vengeance.
The Lord comes to pay
And to revenge all our blood.
His wrath is beginning to descend.
We are awaiting the last bowl.

Oh bride, go to meet your Lord and King.
Arise, Jerusalem, prepare yourself.
Receive all your children alike.
You shall spread out your tents.
Receive your corwn, receive your kingdom.
Your King comes to deliver.
He brings his reward before him.
You shall rejoice in it.
We shall see his glory in these times.
Rejoice, Zion, with pure Jerusalem.

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1568: Eighty-four Valenciennes iconoclasts

Add comment January 4th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1568 saw the mass execution of 84 people in Valenciennes for participating in the Low Countries’ Calvinist movement against Catholicism’s longstanding use of images and icons to project its cosmology.

In his In Praise of Folly, the humanist Erasmus — a Dutchman, mark — jibed at those who

attribute strange virtues to the shrines and images of saints and martyrs, and so would make their credulous proselytes believe, that if they pay their devotion to St. Christopher in the morning, they shall be guarded and secured the day following from all dangers and misfortunes: if soldiers, when they first take arms, shall come and mumble over such a set prayer before the picture of St. Barbara, they shall return safe from all engagements: or if any pray to Erasmus on such particular holidays, with the ceremony of wax candles, and other fopperies, he shall in a short time be rewarded with a plentiful increase of wealth and riches.* The Christians have now their gigantic St. George, as well as the pagans had their Hercules; they paint the saint on horseback, and drawing the horse in splendid trappings, very gloriously accoutred, they scarce refrain in a literal sense from worshipping the very beast.

Those words were published just a few years before Martin Luther nailed his earthshaking theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Erasmus’s critique of the Catholic Church never extended so far as leaving its fold, but for observers who bent more towards revolution than reform, the adoration of these graven images could easily read as simple idolatry just this side of Golden Calf territory — and in this they harkened back to a venerable strain of iconoclasm within Christianity.

This was far from Luther’s own chief concern, but many other preachers and proselytizers thundered against the statues and paintings that stood in for the divine — and arguably, came to be venerated as if they were the divine. “[These] images are not to be endured, for all that God has forbidden, there can be no compromise,” said the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli, under whose leadership icons were pulled down in Zurich churches as early as 1523.

Iconoclastic effusions followed elsewhere in Europe, tracking the spread of the various Protestant strains. John Calvin, himself driven to refuge in Switzerland, took a similar anti-icon line. It was Calvin’s theology that inspired the French Huguenots, and Huguenot iconoclastic demonstrations began occurring in the north and east of France from about 1560.

They soon spread to the neighboring Reformation-minded Habsburg possessions.

The so-called Beeldenstorm, or “Iconoclastic Fury”, broke in the town of Steenvorde near the southwestern fringe of the Low Countries. (In fact, it’s in France in the present day, as is Valenciennes, the site of our titular execution.) On St. Lawrence’s Day of 1566 — August 10 — a Calvinist mob invaded a church dedicated to that saint and stripped it of its idolatrous garnishes.

From Steenvorde, the storm raced north, gathering strength. Within days, it had deluged cities large and small throughout the Low Countries: formerly retiring heretics now bold and impious enough to assail the Catholicism’s sacred emblems. They did not only pull down icons in churches — but in rectories, hospitals, universities. “We have had this night past a marvelous stir,” the Welsh cloth-merchant Richard Clough wrote on August 21 from Antwerp, the continent’s commercial capital. “All the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of thing left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed.”

In France, Catholic enragees mobilized in response, here repulsing an iconoclast raid and there sparking a street brawl. But in the Low Countries the iconoclasts faced much scantier resistance; even the authorities practically stood down — either enervated, or sympathetic.

This storm naturally shocked faithful Catholics. Rioters “defaced the painted images, not only of Our Lady but of all others in the town. They tore the curtains, dashed in pieces the carved work of brass and stone, brake the altars, spoilt the clothes and corporesses, wrested the irons, conveyed away or brake the chalices and vestiments, pulled up the brass of the gravestones … trod [the altar] under their feet and (horrible it is to say!) shed their stinking piss upon it,” an expatriate English theologian lamented from Louvian.


Frans Hogenberg‘s etching “The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566″ depicts iconoclasts attacking the Cathedral of Our Lady at Antwerp.

According to Carlos Eire there were some 400 iconoclast incidents in Flanders alone over the summer and fall of 1566.

Every prince in Europe was put to the test by the Reformation movements of the 16th century. Few answered with less finesse than Philip II, the fervently Catholic King of Spain who counted the Low Countries among his vast patrimony and viewed altar-pissing in Catholic churches as lese-majeste stacked upon sacrilege.

The iconoclastic disturbances led Philip to dispatch his best general, the Duke of Alba (or Alva) to suppress these rebellious subjects (and eventually, to lose his glasses). He replaced Philip’s half-sister Margaret of Parma in both position and approach: in vain did Margaret warn her successor against destroying the loyalty of these provinces with excess rigor. Alba’s mission was to handle the Low Countries roughly, and he did not fail to do it.


Simon Frisius‘s engraving of the Council of Troubles.

Setting up a drumhead tribunal known as the “Council of Troubles” — very soon popularly denoted the “Council of Blood” — the Iron Duke began wreaking havoc on enemies actual, perceived, potential, and in more than a few cases, not at all.

Through all these months the frightful cruelties of the blood-judges were continued. Every day the executions took a wider sweep. “I would have every man feel that any day his house may fall about his ears,” wrote Alva to the king. Of this benevolent wish he made a fact. Men of all creeds and of none felt equally insecure. The Romanists themselves, the most sturdy and devoted of them, shuddered and rubbed their necks, to be sure that their heads still rested upon their shoulders as they glanced towards Egmont‘s prison at Ghent. “The fury of the persecution spreads such horror throughout the nation,” said Orange at the time, “that thousands, and among them some of the principal papists, have fled the country where tyranny is direct against all.”

The blood-judges flooded the land with citations; but so certainly did conviction follow an appearance at their bar, that few responded, while such as did were not were condemned to exile and to suffer the confiscation of their estates for contumacy; or if caught, they were beheaded without trial. Those who, strong in innocence, ventured to brave an examination, were inevitably doomed.

Maybe the most outrageously illustrative case was a man named Peter De Witt** in Amsterdam. His crime was persuading a rioter not to shoot a magistrate — this being held to imply a level of esteem among the amok heretics incompatible with correct devotion to God and King.

In batches of forty, fifty, and even a hundred, men, women and children were led out to indiscriminate death. On one occasion, ninety-five miscellaneous individuals, collected from various parts of Flanders, were butchered in company. At another time forty-six of the citizens of Malines were decapitated. On the 4th of January, 1568, eighty-four persons, charged with participating in the tumults, were executed together in the public square at Valenciennes.

The (helpfully dated) bloodletting we mark with this date’s post was itself no more representative of the Council of Troubles than any other, collectively amounting to uncounted thousands whose martyrdom — to creed, country, or both — would stir the Dutch Revolt and, eventually, the independence of the Netherlands from Spain.

* A wry reference to the writer’s namesake saint: Erasmus the humanist was perpetually short of cash, and at one point forced into monastic vows by his penury. (Erasmus the saint is not actually the patron of anything related to wealth.)

** No kinship that I’m aware of with the Dutch Republic’s leader a century later, Johan de Witt.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Netherlands,Public Executions,Spain

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